The entire stadium chanted the starting pitcher’s name in unison: “Ry-u! Ry-u!”Blue towels waved furiously in the background. The game, and the crowd, belonged to Hyun-Jin Ryu, who finished the at-bat by uncorking a low 91-mph fastball. Ender Inciarte swung and missed.
Strike three. Seven innings, seven zeros on the Dodger Stadium scoreboard. A miracle.
The miracle wasn’t the seven scoreless innings Ryu pitched Thursday in the Dodgers’ postseason opener, a 6-0 victory over the Atlanta Braves in Game 1 of their National League Division Series. The miracle was that he was pitching at all at this stage of the year.
Ryu was four years removed from his last postseason appearance. In the season that followed that 2014 division series loss, the left-hander was diagnosed with a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder. The medical literature at the time gave him a 40% to 50% chance of ever pitching at the level he did in his first two seasons with the Dodgers.
And now he was back, not just back in the physical sense, but back to pitching at a level high enough to justify a starting assignment in Game 1 starter over longtime franchise cornerstone Clayton Kershaw.
Ryu befuddled the inexperienced Braves with his varied assortment of pitches. He limited them to four hits. He didn’t allow a single walk. He struck out eight.
“Definitely, the three years of the process were tough, but tonight seemed to be the fruition of all the hard work that I put in,” Ryu said through an interpreter.
Dr. Neal ElAttrache watched from behind the owner’s box. Other times, ElAttrache followed the action from a nearby staircase. Or from inside the Dodgers clubhouse.
“This is the greatest part of what I do,” ElAttrache said.
When others were skeptical, ElAttrache believed. The team’s head physician, he said he estimated the odds of Ryu making a complete recovery from his 2015 shoulder operation at 80%. ElAttrache was the doctor who performed the surgery.
This wasn’t any pitcher’s shoulder ElAttrache had to repair.
Ryu was the first player to go directly from the South Korean baseball league to the majors. The Dodgers paid the Hanwha Eagles $25.7 million for the right to negotiate with him and signed him to a six-year, $36-million contract.
Over his first two seasons with the Dodgers, he was a combined 28-15 with a 3.17 earned-run average. He also established himself as a big-game pitcher. As a rookie, he was dominant in his first game against countryman Shin-Soo Choo, which was chronicled by about 90 reporters from South Korea.
Ryu’s first postseason game was an unmitigated disaster, as he lasted only three innings into his start against the Braves in their 2013 NLDS. He learned from the experience, however. In the next round, against the St. Louis Cardinals, he didn’t hold anything in reserve and threw with maximum effort from the first inning. The result was seven innings and a Dodgers victory.
Ryu went against the Cardinals in October again the following season, this time in the NLDS. The Dodgers lost, but not because of him. He held the Cardinals to a run over six innings.
He never reached the mound the next season. He started feeling shoulder pain in spring training and the discomfort never vanished. By late May, he was on ElAttrache’s operating table.
Labrum surgeries used to be considered death sentences for pitchers. That’s ceased to be the case, but complete recoveries remain far from guaranteed.
“Labrum surgeries sort of have a bad connotation in baseball for certain reasons, one of which is that it’s not always very straight forward what to do in a pitcher’s shoulder,” ElAttrache explained.
The pitching motions cause the shoulder to develop abnormalities over time, some of them necessary for throwing a baseball over 90 mph.
Some structural changes, for example, allow for greater flexibility. Repair those adaptive features and a pitcher won’t be able to rotate his arm sufficiently to generate adequate velocity.
“So if you decide that the labrum is the cause of the problem and you miss the real cause of the problem and you do a perfect operation on the labrum, you haven’t solved the problem,” ElAttrache said.
In Ryu’s case, ElAttrache isolated a posterior superior labral tear as the source of discomfort. The labrum was repaired, but that was only the first step in what became a lengthy recovery process. There were therapy sessions overseen by then-trainer Stan Conte and the Ryu’s representatives at the Boras Corporation. Ryu pitched in a major league game in 2016, after which he experienced elbow pain. That required a minor procedure.
Ryu made 24 starts and pitched reasonably well, but not well enough to earn a place on the Dodgers’ postseason roster.
“I think that you see guys that are a lot more emotional, vocal, but don’t have the same compete as Hyun-Jin,” manager Dave Roberts said. “He didn’t like not being part of the roster last year. I know it hurt him. And so he was going to do everything he could to force our hand by performing to be in this position that he put himself in.”
Ryu was 3-0 with a 2.12 ERA through his first three starts this year. Then calamity struck again, this time as he tore his left groin muscle off its bone.
“Unfortunately, he got hurt in Arizona or you might be talking about him in the Cy Young race,” third baseman Justin Turner said.
Ryu returned in mid-August, finishing the season 7-3 with a 1.97 ERA. He maintained that form Thursday.
ElAttrache credited the performance on the pitcher’s increased focus on conditioning.
“He’s an underappreciated athlete,” ElAttrache said. “He’s a good athlete. He’s very strong. His mechanics have really come around this year. I hate to jinx anything, but we may be seeing the healthy Hyun-Jin Ryu for the first time in a while.”
There could be a significant payoff, for both the Dodgers and for him individually. The Dodgers now have a rotation that can compensate for a bullpen that isn’t as well stocked as it was last season. Ryu, 31, could become extremely wealthy this winter. He will be a free agent.